Brexit’s test of sovereignty

13 Dec

The Phase 1 deal agreed by the UK government and the EU last week strongly suggests that Britain is on course to remain in the Single Market and Customs Union. The deal indicates the degree to which the British government is struggling to cope politically and intellectually with the task demanded of them by the majority of voters.

On each of the three points of contention, the UK’s concessions indicate that the government has no real understanding of what it might mean to reinvigorate British sovereignty by leaving the EU.

On the financial settlement, the government’s leading Brexiteer had loudly played to the domestic gallery by proclaiming that the EU could ‘go whistle’ for its money, blithely ignoring the obvious reality of international politics: if the UK wanted a trade deal with the EU, it was going to have negotiate a price. In the end the agreed price looks, as you might expect it would, to be mid-way between the EU’s larger initial demands and the UK getting off without paying anything.

On EU citizens, the UK has conceded that for at least eight years after leaving the EU, the European Court of Justice should have the final say on disputes involving EU citizens who remain as residents in the UK. This already amounts to agreeing not to leave the EU’s legal jurisdiction for a very long period. The UK government could have cut the ground from under the EU on this point by embracing EU citizens already resident here, offering them a fast track to British citizenship. There is already overwhelming support in the UK for allowing resident EU citizens to remain and it is widely agreed that they represent a considerable benefit to the UK economy. The British government seems simply to have lacked the political imagination to make such a simple, obvious and – most importantly – sovereign gesture.

On the Irish border question, the deal is a fudge intended to push the problem into 2018. The bottom line of the deal is this: there will neither be a hard border with customs posts and regulatory divergence between the South and the North of Ireland, nor will there be such a border in the Irish Sea between Northern Ireland the rest of the UK. This amounts to admitting that the UK will not leave the Single Market or the Customs Union, particularly because any trade deal the UK is likely to get from the EU will not cover all of the areas of relevance to the Good Friday Agreement.  Here the challenge that Brexit poses to Britain as a sovereign state is most sharply posed, but in a way that is different from the conventional narrative.

A majority of British voters voted to Leave. However a majority of voters in Northern Ireland voted to Remain. Britain could assert its sovereignty in one of two ways. It could simply impose the national decision on Northern Ireland and insist on a hard border between the South and the North of Ireland. Or it could draw a hard border in the Irish Sea allowing Northern Ireland to remain in the Single Market and Customs Union. But neither seems to be possible because it is believed that either option puts the survival of the Good Friday Agreement at risk. The first option would increase the separation of Northern Ireland from the Republic of Ireland and make cross-border cooperation more difficult in a way that is unacceptable to nationalist opinion. The second option would place what would be in effect an international border within the UK, representing a significant step towards the reunification of Ireland and unacceptable to unionists.

Britain can neither implement the decision of a British majority over Northern Ireland nor accept that Northern Ireland is no longer part of Britain. The problem Brexit poses for Northern Ireland is not the disruptive exercise of sovereign power from London which has concerned so many Remainers. In fact, it is precisely the opposite. Britain can neither reassert the claims of an imperial past nor move beyond them. This is the fundamental problem of Brexit, which in the case of Northern Ireland has only been postponed until some time next year. One reason why this involution of British sovereignty is only being made explicit today is that EU membership has served for many years as a substitute for the political allegiances that once bound the union of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland together. As the historian Ross McKibbin once remarked, ‘the EU is now as much part of the structure of the British state as the union with Scotland once was’. And for that reason, the attempt to leave the EU has exposed the withering away of the union and of the sovereignty of the British state.  It is this crisis of the exercise of British sovereign power that is the main force shaping Brexit.

The Irish obstacle to Brexit is a local version of the UK’s larger problem with the EU. As Chris Bickerton and Richard Tuck have pointed out in A Brexit Proposal, joining the Common Market back in the 1970s was a way in which Britain managed the problem of imperial decline, and in the process avoided openly confronting the reality that Britain had become a post-imperial northern European state with limited international reach. Nostalgic Tory Eurosceptics (and the DUP) have never understood that leaving the EU means Britain giving up on its pretensions to great power status. Many Remainers for their part seem equally reluctant to abandon these pretensions.

It is this lack of political imagination on the Leave side that lies at the heart of the Brexit problem. Right from the start the UK government meekly accepted its role as just another member state of the EU when it quickly entered into the one-sided and bureaucratic Article 50 process rather than looking for ways to negotiate politically with other individual states. Brexiteers offered no alternative perspective to that laid down by the EU itself. It has subsequently been on the back foot all the way through the negotiations.

It is true, as the government is now suggesting, that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. Some compromise of the Irish border question might yet be found that satisfies English demands for Brexit and Irish concerns for stability. Nevertheless there remains a basic unwillingness among the British political class to imagine Britain as it really is: a large European economy characterized by low-wages, low productivity and long-term economic, political and constitutional sclerosis. If this reality could be confronted, it would be possible to see that Brexit offers an opportunity to reverse Britain’s decline by reconnecting significant sections of Britain’s population with the nation’s political life and confronting the problem of Britain’s broken economic model.

If Britain does end up remaining in the Single Market and the Customs Union, the demand of the majority of voters in the referendum to take back control from the undemocratic mechanisms established by the EU treaties will have been frustrated. Populists and Leavers are already pointing the finger at elite Remainer technocrats who have used their domination of the political class and the deep state to frustrate the popular will. There is some truth in that claim but it evades the primary problem. The resistance of EU supporters to the majority is to be expected – they have always been committed to undemocratic supranational and intergovernmental institutions. But that is only the secondary problem for Brexit. The chief obstacle to implementing the referendum result remains what it has always been – the absence of a political vision that could translate popular anger and frustration at the majority’s exclusion from political influence into a political program for a sovereign democratic Britain.

Chris Bickerton and Peter Ramsay

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A Brexit Proposal – Bickerton and Tuck

20 Nov

Chris Bickerton (TCM contributor) and Richard Tuck, Professor of Government at Harvard University, are publishing today their pamphlet, ‘A Brexit Proposal’, which can be downloaded here – Brexit proposal 20 Nov final.

As two prominent supporters of Brexit, they lay out why Brexit is so important for the future of democratic politics in the United Kingdom and beyond, and they give details of what a vision of Brexit for the Left might amount to. They explain why the British Left has embraced a pro-EU position and why this belies a profound misunderstanding of the nature of ‘ever closer union’. The pamphlet looks at all the outstanding issues in the negotiations – a financial settlement, Northern Ireland and EU citizens’ rights – and what a solution to each of them might look like.

 

 

Brexit and Academia

2 Nov

Over the last week, British universities have been all aflutter after a junior government whip, Chris Heaton-Harris, wrote to universities requesting the names of professors teaching about Brexit and their course materials. The letter triggered denunciations of “Brexit McCarthyism”, swiftly followed by a Daily Mail campaign against “Remainer universities”. An apoplectic reaction has followed from many academics, mingled with decidedly unamusing efforts to satirise the Mail.

Two contributors to The Current Moment have made public comments on the imbroglio, and the wider issue of academia’s response to Brexit. Both are opposed to the witch-hunt initiated by Heaton-Harris but neither think universities are immune from bias. Chris Bickerton writes in The Sunday Times:

It is an irony of the EU referendum aftermath that so much time has been spent on lamenting the decline of tolerance and mutual respect by precisely those who have shown so little tolerance and respect towards those whose views on Europe differ from their own… This intolerance over Brexit is rooted in a lack of empathy with or interest in the lives of others, especially those outside one’s social circle and lower down the ladder of income and education. Rather than engage in an argument or inquire into someone’s reasons, one dismisses them as racists.

Meanwhile, Lee Jones comments on The LSE’s Brexit Blog:

It is not exaggerated… to identify a strong academic “groupthink” around Brexit. Before the referendum, many universities and their sectoral bodies campaigned openly for Remain, with zero internal consultation and no consideration of the impact on scholars and students who disagreed with this. That they now object to being called “Remainer Universities” is frankly bizarre. Without exception, every academic I have met since the referendum automatically assumes that I voted Remain, and they often proceed to make disparaging remarks about Brexit and those supporting it. My immediate colleagues are delightful people, treating me more with bemusement than hostility. But an intimate friend of 10 years’ standing, who is also an academic, cut me off completely after the referendum, accusing me of racism. I know other pro-Leave academics who have been blanked in the corridors or face derision or shouting matches for publishing articles critical of the EU and its leading politicians. One of the Guardian’s “anonymous academics” complained of being treated like a “pariah” for supporting Leave. This kind of groupthink, and the disconnection from much of the rest of society that it implies, is not healthy for scholarship or teaching.

People of Europe, Look to Brexit Britain!

26 Sep

Back at the time of the Brexit referendum, we were told that the EU is horrendously flawed (democratic deficit, Eurozone crisis, Fortress EU drowning refugee children in the Med), but that we have no choice but to vote for it, because it is the only thing constraining the peoples of Europe from unleashing their basic Fascist urges and sweeping away our nice social-democratic bits and pieces like workers’ rights and the welfare state.

But the brave voters voted for Brexit regardless, and, in the year since, Britain has seen pretty much the political opposite. The Right has been smashed. The BNP, Britain First and the EDL are scarcely to be seen, UKIP is crushed, the Tories are in government but disarray. The social-democratic Left is resurgent. Defying the long-term trend among social-democrat parties across the EU, Labour has bounced back from its decline, both in membership (it’s now the largest party in Western Europe) and its vote. Plus – that has been under the leadership of the Left of the party, blowing apart the decades of Blairite dogma that had been killing off faith in democratic politics, especially among the young.

What about Europe?

The big French and German elections this year have seen exactly what the EU allegedly prevents. Social-democrat parties in decline (just 6% for the French Socialist candidate!) and far-right populism surging: France’s National Front in second place, Alternative für Deutschland in third, gaining seats in the Bundestag for the first time.

And this is the big trend across EU member-states – social-democratic parties dying; right-wing populism surging. The Dutch Labour Party’s vote plummeted by nearly 20% this year. A far-right candidate very nearly became President of Austria the year before. Right-wing xenophobic types are in power in Poland and Hungary.

Obviously, EU technocracy isn’t the solution to populism, it’s the cause. They feed each other. Distant, unaccountable, they’re-all-the-same, technocratic politicians alienate the voters, who go to populist parties to cast protest votes. This scares the technocrats, who become more convinced that the voters are basically fascists, and so retreat further into the technocratic state away from the reach of democracy. Which then further alienates the voters. It’s a vicious circle.

Britain voted to leave the EU – necessary, though not sufficient, for breaking the vicious technocracy-populism circle. Far from being a triumph for the populist Right, it has been a humiliation. UKIP is disintegrating at the loss of its single issue, and the Tory Brexiteer Right are being very publicly humiliated for their lack of leadership and the hollowness of their political vision. Meanwhile Labour, even under the leadership of a dim beardy CND leftie, is looking like the next government.

So I turn the warning around on the EU.

Want to save democracy and social-democratic policies from right-wing populism?

Then you must follow Britain’s lead and exit the EU.

 

James Aber

Charlottesville and the Politics of Left Hysteria

26 Aug

The murder of an anti-fascist protestor (and the less-noted deaths of two National Guardsmen) at a “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia has gripped the United States and many observers elsewhere. It has revived claims about the rise of a “fascist” threat in the West. This is simply hysterical, and symbolises the US left’s incapacity for reasoned political analysis, particularly since the election of Donald Trump.

The most striking aspect of the left’s hysteria over Charlottesville is its failure to understand that it won the US culture wars, not the right. By any reasonable measure, American attitudes have become steadily more liberal over time. A summary of opinion polling since the 1970s shows a “sweeping, fundamental change in norms regarding race”, with steady declines on practically every key measure of racism. Surveys on attitudes towards women reveal an identical decline in sexism. More belatedly, a similar transformation happened in attitudes towards LGBT people. Two-thirds of Americans now support gay marriage, up from just 40 percent in 2009, suggesting that campaigners for equal rights now find themselves kicking at a largely open door. The membership of vile organisations like the Ku Klux Klan has collapsed, from a peak of three to six million in the 1920s to around 6,000 today. Only 10 percent of the US public admit to supporting the “alt right” (only 4 percent “strongly”, while 83 percent say it is “unacceptable to hold neo-Nazi or white supremacist views”. Too high and not high enough, one might say. But the fact is that the far-right is a lunatic fringe.

The rise of the “alt-right” does not signify some grave reversal of this trend, requiring massive societal mobilisation to counter it, but a rather sad, ineffectual backlash from the side that has already lost. The fact that the “Unite the Right” rally managed to draw only 500 protestors from across the entire US (population: 323 million) speaks volumes. A “free speech rally” in Boston a few days later drew only about 100 attendees, whereas the counter-protestors numbered around 40,000, with smaller counter-protests in many other US cities. The situation is identical in Britain, where far-right rallies typically draw crowds of one or two dozen, dwarfed by “antifa” counter-protestors (and the police). Trump’s mealy-mouthed, inconsistent criticisms of “both sides” are profoundly out of step with wider social attitudes, reflected in his total isolation even amongst Republican leaders and military chiefs.

The left is hardly alone in profoundly misreading this situation – the Western media have also responded with a flame-fanning hysteria as part of its relentless campaign against Trump.

But the left’s particular inability to gauge the threat posed by the right reflects its obsession with symbolic politics. The defeat of class-based political organising – never that strong in the US – in the 1980s means most leftist agitation has focused on identity-based campaigning. This has noble roots in the Civil Rights Movement, and early feminist and gay liberation struggles, some of which also involved a strong focus on material redress. But in contrast to these early movements, which had universalistic goals of equal treatment, identity politics has come to fetishize differences based on sex, sexuality, ethnicity and religion in an extremely divisive and moralistic manner, with the vigorous policing of public language, symbols, and private beliefs.

Accordingly, the analytics of political economy have been replaced with an analytics of identity. Once, the left understood socio-economic and political inequality to stem predominantly from gross inequalities in wealth, maintained by circuits of capital, ideology and state coercion. Today’s identitarian left attributes it to the uneven “privilege” of different identity groups, which is assumed to flow from continued prejudice (even if it now lurks “implicitly” in the subconscious). This leads to attacks on “privileged” groups – notably “cisgender” white men – and a politics of “calling out” prejudicial behaviour. That “whiteness” masks enormous disparities in wealth and power is disregarded. Those dedicated to the cause, particularly in the oppressor “white” category, must practice the virtue-signalling rituals of “wokeness”, declaring their privileges and implicit prejudices and pledging to continuously work to improve. Those who do not are deeply suspect; a refusal to admit one’s racism is seen as proof thereof. In the last decade, the movement has acquired a strongly authoritarian streak, particularly on university campuses, with growing demands to shut down speakers and movements whose views do not conform with the new orthodoxy.

The alt-right is merely the mirror image of this. Right-wing, white nationalism has been around for centuries, but identity politics has given it an important filip by encouraging some to embrace “whiteness” not as a spur for shame and “wokeness”, but as a positive source of identity. The scenes in Charlottesville of the two sides alternately screaming “black lives matter” and “white lives matter” at one another signifies this most clearly. Others on the “alt-right” are less interested in white nationalism than simply needling campus radicals by tweeting “dank memes” from their parents’ basements.

That these losers are now depicted as a serious threat to democracy reflects a twofold deficit on the identitarian left. The first is its failure to bring much of the American working classes with it. The loudest practitioners of identity politics are (privileged) students on university campuses, not fast food or factory workers. The left’s growing divorce from material considerations, and the self-flagellation demanded from millions of impoverished whites, has left most people baffled or cold. Attempts to build solidarity across identity groups on the basis of material interests have often faced outright hostility from identitarians. Occupy Wall Street, for instance, was derided for its “race problem”, while Bernie Sanders’ attempts to mobilise the “99 percent” met denunciations for his (mostly mythical) misogynistic “Bernie Bros” and for neglecting black people. Tellingly, the identitarian left preferred Hillary Clinton’s cynically assembled “rainbow coalition”.

This led to a second failure: the lumping of anyone who did not embrace this agenda into a unified “basket of deplorables” motivated exclusively by vile prejudice. Viewed through the prism of identity, the rainbow coalition’s failure to win power could only be understood as a “racist whitelash”, signifying the existence of a terrible counter-force, prompting widespread denunciation of “white people” and truly hysterical claims that a fascist regime was now in power. In reality, as we explained at the time, there is no way that a “whitelash” could explain Trump’s election, and the administration’s subsequent disarray and disintegration – the only legislation Trump has signed being additional sanctions on Russia, which he had opposed prior to his election – signify gross ineptitude, not an authoritarian regime – still less a fascist one. In this fevered atmosphere it is easy to see how 500 losers are hysterically misinterpreted as representing a much bigger force in American society.

A hysterical campaign against “fascism” is not only a major distraction, it will only compound the left’s problems. All the objective evidence shows that there is actually no need to persuade the vast majority of Americans of liberal principles of equality. They already agree. When everyone from Mitt Romney to Bernie Sanders agree with you, you are kicking at an open door, and that suggests you are in the wrong house.

The real question is how the left can win over a majority to a programme of radical social, political and economic change that addresses both economic disparities and the gross inequalities suffered by minorities. Both are required because they interact, producing vast disparities in household income, poverty, unemployment and incarceration rates among ethnic groups. But this cannot be tackled by setting identity groups against one another, turning the struggle for equality into a zero-sum game. Telling white citizens that unless they practice self-flagellating “wokeness” they are “fascists” is no way to persuade people that the left is capable of solving both their economic grievances and advancing the rights of minorities simultaneously. Already, large numbers of Americans feel they have no dog in this fight: only 10 percent of them support the alt-right but 41 percent have “no opinion”. The identitarian left has not only failed to win over the so-called “white working class”, but even a plurality of black Americans disagree with tearing down Confederate statues, the main flashpoint at Charlottesville. A phoney war against “fascists” – especially one that depicts “ordinary people” as “white supremacists by default”, as one CNN editorial put it – will likely alienate many people already perturbed by the authoritarianism and illiberalism of a group increasingly being dubbed the “alt-left”. The Democratic Socialists of America are rightly trying (yet again) to rally people around a shared agenda of economic change and social justice, but despite making major concessions to identitarianism, even they face internal challenges from an influx of young agitators steeped in identity politics.

Moreover, history shows that anti-fascist campaigns only hobble the left and empower the state, because they urge the expansion of authoritarian powers that are inevitably deployed against progressives and minorities. In the mid-1930s, supported by anti-fascist campaigners, Congress convened a Special Committee on Un-American Activities Authorized to Investigate Nazi Propaganda and Certain Other Propaganda Activities. After World War II, under Senator McCarthy, this committee turned its sights on the left. Similarly, under pressure from anti-fascists, Britain adopted the 1936 Public Order Act was passed, which was subsequently used more frequently against the left than the right, including Sinn Fein marches in the 1970s and striking miners in the 1980s. Today, American leftists urge tighter restrictions on freedom of assembly and speech, asking both government and employers to intervene. There is already evidence that growing regulation is targeting progressives and minorities, and over 250,000 people have petitioned the government to declare “antifa” a “domestic terrorist group”. Germany, meanwhile, has just shut down and raided popular leftist website IndyMedia for “sowing hate against different opinions and representatives of the country”.

Charlottesville is a wake-up call, alright. But not in the way the American left thinks.

 

Lee Jones

General Election 2017: Corbynmania in Perspective

28 Jun

A year ago, following the EU referendum, many commentators were convinced that the Brexit vote had ushered in a generation of Tory hegemony, and the left would be permanently confined to the margins. Earlier this month, the Labour Party sharply improved its electoral performance with its most left-wing leader ever, and its most radical manifesto since 1983. Hailed by adoring Glastonbury crowds, Jeremy Corbyn himself has gone from zero to hero in a matter of weeks. Most of those commentators seem to have forgotten their earlier predictions in their haste to celebrate a Corbyn “victory”. But their gushing enthusiasm is no more measured than their earlier gloom.

A proper reckoning with the election result needs to start from the position that the EU referendum was never a hard-right victory in the first place. It then needs to be remembered that Corbyn still lost the election. Labour won only 262 seats, on 40% of the vote, to the Tories’ 317 seats, on 42.3%. Despite her manifest weaknesses, Theresa May won more votes than any prime minister since 1992. Corbyn’s “victory” amounts to averting catastrophe and making the Labour Party look like a serious contender for power again. A sober analysis of how this was achieved tells a less heroic story than the myth now developing around Corbyn.

A combination of different factors, with strong regional variation, helped the Labour Party electorally. Moreover, underlying Corbyn’s electoral success are elements of a political approach from Labour that is depressingly familiar and unattractive.

How Corbyn survived

Crucially, the Conservatives ran a totally dismal campaign. Theresa May was exposed as a robotic technocrat, shrill and inconsistent. She failed to persuade anyone but Tory and former UKIP voters that the election was solely about Brexit and her leadership, allowing Corbyn to reframe the election as being about socio-economic issues, where the Tories are weak.

Conversely, Corbyn had an excellent campaign from the outset – partly, it seems, by accident. In retrospect he appears to have ridden a tidal wave of support, but this is rather misleading. Whereas the Tories took the fight into apparently vulnerable Labour seats, Corbyn waged a defensive campaign in the Labour heartlands. Many rightly speculated that his remarkably large rallies in such areas were largely intended to shore up his position in the face of an apparently inevitably post-election leadership challenge. Instead, these events, widely covered on TV and social media, seemed to inspire people that something different was in the air. The “ground war” had a similar defensive quality, with Labour HQ instructing activists to shore up incumbents, rather than going on the attack. It was only as the polls shifted that grassroots campaigners, on their own initiative, shifted to proactive campaigning in neighbouring marginals.

Corbyn’s team was able to quickly assemble a remarkably popular manifesto. Despite two years of relentless infighting and plots, party wonks had somehow managed to find time to work up and cost specific policies. This was a real game-changer. Many had previously been frustrated with Corbyn’s apparent inability to translate fine-sounding words into concrete proposals; the sudden production of a costed manifesto gave him a serious edge over the visionless, warmed-over One Nation Toryism offered by Theresa May, in an uncosted manifesto that contained an electorally-deadly “dementia tax”. The Corbyn team’s leak of the draft manifesto was also a masterstroke. It confirmed the policies as widely popular, bouncing the party’s general executive into approving it.

The popularity of Labour’s policies was expressed in the remarkable cross-class support the party attained. This also reflects in part Corbyn’s appeal to the populist mood, where he had the advantage of being a lifelong outsider – a position burnished by attacks over his previous positions and associations. By comparison, Theresa May looked every inch the elite technocrat that she is.

Labour won a plurality of votes among all workers, with only retirees backing the Tories. Much has been written since the election suggesting that Labour under Corbyn has essentially become a middle-class party. Although Labour’s support has certainly become more middle-class over recent decades, there is no sign of any big shift under Corbyn specifically. If we look at how people in particular social grades voted, compared with 2015, Labour and the Tories both gained more support across all categories, but Labour still did a little better with less well-off voters. (NB this data measures occupational grade, not social class.)

AB C1 C2 DE
Labour 35 (+9) 41 (+12) 39 (+11) 46 (+12)
Conservative 44 (+4) 41 (+7) 44 (+12) 34 (+9)

Table 1: Proportion of voters within each social grade won by Labour and the Conservatives respectively

Nonetheless, what’s striking is obviously the rather weak association between class and voting behaviour – especially when compared to age. Corbyn managed to boost substantially the Labour vote among under-45s – not merely among the very young (see Fig. 1). Early boasts from the NUS president of a record 72% turnout among 18-24s turned out to be self-congratulatory and baseless nonsense, but turnout did return to early-1990s levels (see Fig. 2). This is crucial insofar as there is now a yawning generational gap in voting patterns (see Fig. 3). After a decade of disengagement under New Labour, the EU referendum seems to have kick-started politics again for the youngest generation.

Fig. 1: Turnout by age group

Fig. 2: Conservative-Labour gap by age

Also crucial was Labour’s stance on Brexit, where a triangulating fudge actually became an electoral asset. In pro-Leave constituencies, Corbyn’s insistence on respecting the EU referendum result was decisive. As Paul Mason, who campaigned in several pro-Leave areas, reports, this was needed merely to gain a hearing for Labour on the doorstep. This helped to pull back 20-30% of UKIP’s vote for Labour and held off the Tory advance in the North and Wales. Had Labour run on an anti-Brexit ticket, the Tory capture of Mansfield would have been replicated far more widely.

In some pro-Remain constituencies, however, particularly in the metropolitan areas, Labour candidates expressly pledged to oppose Brexit. This arguably helped attract votes from hardline Remainers and, coupled with substantial tactical voting, explains the significant swing from the Greens and LibDems to Labour. This is why Labour was able to hold constituencies like Bermondsey.

Finally, the terrorist attacks during the election campaign probably had some effect. The Manchester bombing had surprisingly little impact at first. As the person who facilitated the movement of Libyan radicals back and forth to the UK, Theresa May has escaped with staggeringly little accountability. However, nor were the Tories able to smear Corbyn as “weak on security”. Instead, Labour adroitly made an issue of police cuts, while the Tories had little to offer but irrelevant and draconian measures like internet regulation. There was virtually no real discussion of the causes of Islamist terrorism (reversing police cuts won’t solve the problem either), but Labour came out of these horrific events with a reinforced case against austerity.

The left has not yet closed the void

The electoral advance for the Labour Party is significant, but at this stage it would be unwise to put too much hope in it for a revival of mass politics.

In the first place, despite its vastly increased membership thanks to Corbyn, the Labour Party itself is still poorly suited as a vehicle for a new popular movement. Surprisingly little has been written on the Labour “ground war” but it does not seem that the party sought to harness its expanded membership as foot soldiers, and even the pro-Corbyn Momentum faction seemed to play a surprisingly weak role. This reflects the Labour party’s attenuated internal democracy, which has made it resistant to, reluctant to engage with, and even suspicious of, the groundswell generated by Corbyn.

The party machinery, and its parliamentary wing, stayed remarkably disciplined during the campaign, particularly given the previous two years of backbiting. Thanks to the result, Corbyn’s enemies are now forced to smile to his face. But they are still in position. Most party hacks, unelected and elected alike, remain opposed to even the mild social democratic programme that Corbyn stands for. Many campaigned by distancing themselves from him, to save their own skins. Their loyalty is paper thin; they are not true believers but rank opportunists who still believe, in their heart of hearts, in centrist, Blairite policies. It remains to be seen whether Corbyn has the political authority and will to restructure and democratize the party, as he often declares he wants to. His previous treatment of Momentum – cutting them off at the knees after an onslaught from his treacherous deputy, Tom Watson – suggests a reluctance to take the tough decisions needed.

More important, the party and its base remain deeply divided, socially and politically, most importantly over Brexit. The long-term decline of the trade union movement has resulted in Labour’s support being more evenly split between its traditional, deprived, working-class heartlands and the relatively prosperous, liberal, metropolitan middle classes. Its disarray over Brexit expresses this divide. The election did not bridge the divide with a coherent new compromise; it did not even paper over the cracks, because different parliamentary candidates were campaigning on completely different platforms. If Labour was suddenly thrust into power it would struggle to offer anything more coherent than the Tories on the major task facing the country, and rifts would rapidly re-emerge.

A leading force in this division would be the leftists currently celebrating Corbynmania but who spent the last year sneering at Brexit voters as knuckle-dragging racists. They have not suddenly changed their minds about this. They prefer a fairytale version of the general election as some kind of heroic, progressive fight-back against dark forces that never actually existed. Their support for the EU, and their derision for voters, expresses the long-term retreat of the political class away from the people and into the state, and this is yet to be reversed. Corbyn’s ability to engage with the public is admirable, but it is not widely shared. Comparing the reaction to the Grenfell Tower disaster with that towards the Brexit vote, indicates that leftist elites prefer the poor when they appear as vulnerable clients of the welfare state, rather than bolshie political actors in their own right.

Finally, despite Corbyn’s dumping of Blairite fiscal policy, both Corbyn’s manifesto and his campaign drew on New Labour techniques and themes. The party’s balancing act on Brexit and immigration was a careful piece of political triangulation, characteristic of the Blair era. During the campaign, Corbyn was quick to respond to the massacres in Manchester and London by calling for more police on the streets, a classic Blairite move to exploit fear and institutionalise insecurity. Blair may have gone, but the Labour Party both in its approach to police security and its wider approach to social security remains very much a party focused on the politics of safety rather than the politics of self-government.

Lee Jones and Peter Ramsay

General Election 2017: Brexit’s Democratic Dividend

27 Jun

One irony of Britain’s general election result is that the Labour Party’s electoral advance demonstrates just how wrong the left has been about British politics since last year’s EU referendum.

Most of the British left was horrified by the Leave vote, seeing it as a permanent victory for UKIP, the Tory right and racism. Left-wing commentators claimed no longer to recognize their own country and openly compared the atmosphere to the rise of the Nazis in Germany in the early 1930s. We pointed out at the time that this reaction was absurd and an excuse for the left’s failure to represent working class interests. The Eurosceptic right had not suggested anything on a par with the Nazis, and in any case it had nothing to offer politically. Sure enough the Tory right and UKIP promptly imploded after the referendum. A year later the general election has produced a weakened Conservative government, stripped of its majority, and a resurgent Labour Party under a left-wing leader. UKIP has all but disappeared electorally while a record 52 MPs from ethnic minority backgrounds have been elected, including an increase in the number of Muslim MPs from eight to 13. The new parliament also contains a new record of 45 out LGBT MPs. Not only is post-referendum Britain not anything remotely like Weimar Germany, but as we hoped the referendum vote has had some positive effects for democracy in Britain.

As we argued last summer, the referendum saw a significant protest vote against the political void that had opened up between the governing class and the population. This void stands where the political process of representing ordinary people’s interests used to be. It is a void that is embodied above all in the distant and unaccountable form of government that is the European Union.  The shock of the referendum result was that this political void could no longer be ignored, but instead had to be addressed.

When the two major parties returned to the ballot box this year, they had significantly realigned their priorities. With both formally backing Brexit, debate focused on other issues. And both parties looked to the past for inspiration. The Conservative manifesto stuck to their sound finances mantra but otherwise shifted their tone markedly by trying (ineffectually) to evoke the postwar one-nation Toryism. Corbyn’s Labour Party finally buried Blairite fiscal policy and returned to Old Labour’s higher taxes to finance higher spending on public services.

In this contest between antiquated political platforms, it turned out that the Labour Party was in the stronger position. The electorate once again showed that it could not be taken for granted politically. While Brexit remains popular and May got the most support, the electorate denied the prime minister her anticipated overall majority and instead strengthened Labour’s position.

Meanwhile in Scotland the electorate delivered a bloody nose to the dominant Scottish National Party (SNP) by significantly boosting the unionist parties. It transpires that many Scots voted to Remain not out of such fanatical attachment to the EU that they now crave a second independence referendum just to stay in it – but rather because they feared the UK’s breakup. The remarkable revival of Tory fortunes in Scotland reflects their solid unionist credentials and staunch anti-SNP position. Again contrary to predictions, the fallout of the referendum has therefore strengthened the Union with Scotland.

A proper accounting for the effects of last year’s Leave vote would, therefore, find no place for the triumph of the far right. Rather it would include the killing off of austerity as government policy, the strengthening of the Union and a strengthening of parliament’s influence.  In all these ways democracy has been boosted by last year’s Leave vote. The sharp increase in turnout in the recent general election, especially among a generation turned off politics by New Labour, speaks to the return of politics after a long winter of depoliticized technocracy. The electorate has shown it can no longer be taken for granted and the shaken political elite has been forced to try to reconnect with the voters.

Peter Ramsay

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